Viewpoint: Diary of a spectacle designer
Tom Davies reflects on the recent spate of acquisitions in the optical industry
Author: Tom Davies
In my own little empire this month, I’ve been busy pushing forward all the projects we have under way, rolling out new brands, finalising new store leases, training more frame-makers and generally doing what we do. Meanwhile the optical world around us is changing rapidly under the cover of Covid-19.
Earlier this month, the transaction between GrandVision and EssilorLuxottica, which included Vision Express, was declared a done deal. Social media was a bit quiet on the subject. I did see one upset optician complaining about a level playing field, or rather, the lack of one, but, with so much else going on, there wasn’t much noise.
In years gone by, the rage about Luxottica taking over the world was more of a big deal for people. I used to say ‘that’s just capitalism at work’ and shrugged it off. My advice then was: ‘You need to offer something different to the Italian giant, something they don’t have,’ with the inference being that with a personal relationship, higher levels of service and niche products, you could win. Then, the Luxottica-owned David Clulow Opticians moved opposite my Canary Wharf store and quickly wiped 40% off its turnover. ‘Oh bollocks,’ was my assessment at the time, I seem to recall.
Going back a few years, I was asked by feverish opticians and sales reps at Silmo if it was true that Luxottica was buying Tom Davies? One of my reps chipped in: ‘Tom would never sell to Luxottica, isn’t that right Tom?’ The group of opticians looked at me. I asked them: ‘If Luxottica came and offered you three times what your business is worth, would you sell it?’ The response was a chorus of yeses, to which I replied: ‘So would I.’ I was surprised by the dropped jaws, as no matter how big or small, everyone has a price.
To be perfectly honest, I quite liked the rumour that had done the rounds. I probably would have started it myself if I’d known the attention it would have given the company. I think it might have come from an event some years before. Alain Mikli had sold his business to a luxury hedge fund before they sold it on to Luxottica. Apparently, this same fund wanted to buy my brand. The problem was they didn’t really want my brand, but the factory. I told them to sling their hook – and promptly told everyone I met.
So, what of the news last week of Lindberg’s acquisition by Kering Eyewear? My sales team was ecstatic, but I didn’t quite understand why. The theory went that independents would rebel against the change of Lindberg being an independent powerhouse to part of a large multinational fashion house, but to my mind, Kering doesn’t really have the negative reputation with independents that Luxottica has. What I see is a fantastically well-run company being bought by another fantastically well-run company and it scares the life out of me.
Which high end practice would drop their best-selling line? Everyone loves Lindberg. What’s not to love? Yikes.
Maybe it’s time to start another rumour? I heard the other day that Tom Davies was being courted by Kering and that it would be fantastic brand for its portfolio.
But then what would I really do? I love my job and I love my company. I’m in the prime of my life. If I actually did sell out, would I be any happier? I can tell you that I would not.
My good friend Ralph Anderl, ex-owner of ic! Berlin recently sent me his book so I could proofread the English edition. I really like Ralph – he’s a genuine individual who created chaos and change in eyewear. After he sold his company for millions, he wrote a book, built a sauna and became an artist. He lives the perfect life, but somehow, I just don’t envy him. Then the inevitable happened and last year he launched a new eyewear brand called Wuwei, which he sells to people out of his apartment in Berlin. He doesn’t do it for the money but because he loves eyewear.
And therein lies the rub. The reason we all get into this industry and stay here. We know something other people don’t – designing glasses, making glasses, fitting glasses, changing people’s lives, improving their vision and the relationships with themselves and other people. The power of eyewear is our magic.
Only brands and opticians at the end of their journey sell out. Looking at some of the big acquisitions in the past decade, you can see some winners and some losers. There is not always the expected happiness on the other side for the new owner, or the seller.
In the case of Kering’s acquisition of Lindberg, I think this is a good one (unfortunately for many). This is going to result in a new era of glory for the Danish super brand. Good luck to them both. Just please don’t open any stores near me!